After Cancellation of Ayers Appearance, University of Wyoming Students Rally for Free Speech

By April 22, 2010

Today, students and faculty at the University of Wyoming (UW) are holding a demonstration in support of free speech in the wake of a cancelled appearance by education professor and Weather Underground co-founder Bill Ayers. Ayers  has sued the university following two failed attempts to bring him to the campus.

Ayers had originally been scheduled to appear at UW on April 5 and 6, hosted by UW’s Social Justice Research Center (SJRC). Though the controversy surrounding his appearance only swelled in the final days prior to his scheduled visit, the appearance had been planned at least as far back as fall 2009. As people became aware of Ayers’ pending visit, UW was bombarded with angry letters, phone calls, and e-mails from community members, local politicians, and alumni threatening to withhold their donations if Ayers was allowed to speak at UW. SJRC director Francisco Rios ultimately decided to cancel the appearance.

Following the cancellation, another coalition of UW students spearheaded by UW student Meg Lanker and including the UW student group Secular Student Alliance extended an invitation to Ayers, who agreed to come speak at UW on April 28. After the Secular Student Alliance withdrew its invitation, however, Lanker was unable to reserve on-campus space for Ayers’ speech. Ayers is currently set to deliver his lecture off-campus on April 28.

After it became clear that Lanker would not be able to host Ayers anywhere on the UW campus, Ayers and Lanker filed a lawsuit against the university and its President, Tom Buchanan, as well as a motion for preliminary injunction so that Ayers may speak on the UW campus on April 28, as originally planned.

Ayers’ and Lanker’s complaint, filed by attorney David Lane, alleges that UW’s actions amount to a prior restraint on Ayers’ speech, likely on the basis of its content, and are a violation of their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. UW, for its part, will have to answer, among other things, to the complainants’ charge that it exerted undue pressure on the students to force the cancellation of their event. As stated in the complaint,

28. The president of the student group and Ms. Lanker met with University of Wyoming Provost, Myron Allen. Provost Allen was immediately resistant to the idea of Professor Ayers speaking at the University of Wyoming.

29. Provost Allen advised Ms. Lanker: "You need to think about the fact that there are people higher up than me that have trump cards and that this is not a teachable moment. This will inflame public sentiments."

30. Provost Allen further suggested to Ms. Lanker that that many donors would pull funds, and the speech would adversely affect the university.

31. The following day, based on pressure exerted by the University of Wyoming, the Secular Student Alliance withdrew its sponsorship of Professor Ayers’ speech.

[...]

36. When Ms. Lanker asked whether getting another student group to sponsor the speech would enable Professor Ayers to speak at the University, or if there was anything she could do to facilitate Mr. Ayers’ April 28, 2010 speech on campus, [UW General Counsel Susan] Weidel informed Ms. Lanker that another student group sponsor would make no difference, and there was nothing she could do because Professor Ayers was not permitted under any circumstances to speak on campus.

The motion for preliminary injunction has not yet been granted, and the suit is pending. You can read the complaint and the brief in support of the motion for preliminary injunction for more information.

According to students and faculty at UW, the recent controversy has had a palpable chilling effect on speech. The Laramie Boomerang quotes sociology professor David Ashley:

"I think many of the faculty are cowed and fearful. There’s not much they can do to me, but I certainly wouldn’t be speaking out if I weren’t tenured," Ashley said.

Ashley, the Boomerang notes, is one of the many students and faculty members set to speak at the rally today. And Lanker, one of the rally’s organizers, is optimistic that her free speech advocacy is winning converts:

"What I’m finding is a lot of people who were opposed to Bill Ayers coming are now in support of the suit because it has become a First Amendment issue, even people who are very conservative," Lanker said. "One of my friends who’s going to be at the rally is very conservative but he’s worried about the implications (of the ban) for future speakers."

Alex Sullivan-Brink, another of the rally’s organizers, gracefully sums up the message they hope to send today with an appeal to the marketplace of ideas:

"I don’t think freedom of speech is always comfortable with everyone and I think that’s something we live with as Americans," Sullivan-Brink said. "I think maybe it’s an issue of maturity. When we kind of grow in our citizenship, I think we realize that there are different views and we’re not always going to be right, even when we empirically believe it. And I think we have to defend our views, but we also have to listen to other views and criticize them."

FIRE often warns colleges and universities that abandoning the principles of free speech can mean ending up in court. That’s just what happened here. And to UW and all the other universities that have been ignoring FIRE’s ten years of warnings about the importance of respecting fundamental freedoms on campus, we can only say, once again, that we warned you this would happen.

Bravo to the students of UW standing up and spreading the message of free speech today. If you’re on the University of Wyoming campus this afternoon, I hope you’ll attend.

Schools: University of Wyoming